With overcrowded prisons and jails, a program to release nonviolent inmates, especially those with mental illnesses, from the Erie County Correctional Facility weeks or months before their sentences is up should get consideration.
VOICE-Buffalo, the faith-based community betterment group, wants to bring back a “conditional release program.” As News reporter Matthew Spina recently wrote, Erie County ran a successful “conditional release commission” for years after a state law in 1989 called on counties to form such commissions. The Erie County commission fell victim to the county budget crisis of 2004-05 and has lain dormant since.
It’s time to revive it.
It makes sense to open valuable cells for dangerous criminals, as opposed to low-level offenders who may have some form of mental illness, or problems related to service in the military. Treatment, not jail, is the best prescription for the low-level offender and society. There is a lesser chance of recidivism and a greater chance for rehabilitation.
The Community Corrections Advisory Board, volunteers and county officials who focus on conditions at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden, also favor a return of a conditional release commission. Jail Management Superintendent Thomas Diina, who has a seat on the advisory board, voted with the majority last year.
Taken up under the cause for “restorative justice,” VOICE-Buffalo is working hard to garner support. Even County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has shown signs of coming around. To show support, he will send a representative to the group’s meeting in Clarence on June 10. County lawmakers, particularly in the Republican majority, should also consider VOICE-Buffalo’s request to support a bill to operate a conditional release commission.
Poloncarz wants supporters to find the source of money to make the reform program work. The estimated financial need is about $92,000 a year to pay the wages and benefits of a new probation officer to supervise inmates released early. The number of inmates in the program would be capped at 25 at any one time. That seems like a manageable goal, and one that Poloncarz and the County Legislature should commit to meeting.
The money, as VOICE-Buffalo and the Community Corrections Advisory Board suggested, could come from the revenue generated when local jail inmates pay a premium to place a telephone call. That seems a wiser use of these revenues than spending the telephone income on office furniture, sheriff’s vehicles and other items, as has been the case in recent years under Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.
Conditional release for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, with input from the sentencing judge, the district attorney and in consultation with the victim, makes more sense than keeping them locked up without the type of professional treatment they need. Those released would be under the supervision of a county probation officer for up to a year.
Locking up those convicted of nonviolent crimes, especially those struggling with mental illness and keeping them behind bars, is costly and unnecessary. There is a better way forward. It’s found by looking to the county’s recent past.